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Chapter Twenty-Nine

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« on: July 16, 2023, 11:03:02 am »

SARAH felt her spine creep. She could almost have sworn that something cold had touched it. It wasn’t true---no part of this ghastly play was true. Mr. Brown had faked the message on the slate and played tricks with planchette. For all she knew, the words which he had read from the paper had already been there when they came into the room. It would be quite easy. All he need do was to turn the paper over as he took it up.

All this was in her mind before that wavering echo came. It stayed there. A cold drop might run down her back, but nothing was going to make her believe that whispering voice had anything to do with Emily Case. She stiffened herself, and heard Joanna catch her breath and say, “Oh dear!”

“Who are you?” said the Reverend Peter Brown in a solemn voice.

The whisper came again, low on the edge of sound: “Emily Case----”

“Oh dear! Why does she come to us?” Joanna’s voice died away into a whisper.

Quite suddenly with no warning at all the low, heavy door of the room burst open with a crash. There was a sense of impact, of noise, and of force, which was startling in the extreme. The hinges creaked and strained. The latch struck the panelling. A cold air moved in the room.

Sarah stared in the direction of the sound. She could just make out the swinging, quivering door, the shape of the arched doorway against the unbroken darkness of the passage which lay beyond. Nothing moved there. The cold wind moved in the room, and all at once a high, desperate scream went up. The window rattled and shook behind them, and they all heard something fall.

Some thing, or some one. The sound was not loud. It did not seem as if it was in the room. If anyone had sat where they were sitting, Olivia Perrott’s fall might have sounded just like that---- Because there was snow on the ground.

Sarah set her teeth. “It isn’t true! It isn’t, isn’t true!”

The silence came back. It was not complete at first. The door whined on its hinges. There was a faint, dry rustling from the dark passage---no more than a withered leaf would make moving in the draught upon the floor. It might have been a leaf, or a shred of paper---or the rustle of silk. Olivia Perrott might have worn silk for her wedding. Perhaps she had her wedding dress for a shroud. Emily Case had had no silk----

The rustle ceased. The door stopped swinging. The hinges quietened. Now the room was still. Only the soundless sound of pulse and heart-beats moving to the tune of the blood.

And then, out of that dark corner, a long sigh, and sighing words: “Where is it? I gave it to you. Where is it?” And again that long trembling sigh.

Mr. Brown said, “Miss Cattermole---do you know what it wants? If you do, answer it.”

Joanna took her breath with a gasp.

“Oh, I don’t---I don’t really----” The last word broke and failed.

“Cattermole?”

“I know nothing.”

“Miss Marlowe?”

Sarah said, “Nothing,” and thought, “That’s a lie. And I don’t mind if it is, because it’s a trick, a trick, a trick.”

The glimmer of light from the lamp shot suddenly into a momentary rocketing flame. The room was there for as long as a flash may take to flare and fail again. For that space there was someone in the corner by the chimney-breast---a neat, shabby little woman in a black serge coat with a grey opossum collar and a flat, depressed-looking hat slipping a little over to one side----Horribly, unbelievably, Emily Case.

The light went out---clean out this time. They were in the dark. It filled the room like water. It rose black from floor to ceiling. It stretched from them to the chimney corner where the little shabby woman had stood and held a handkerchief to her face---a little, shabby woman who looked like Emily Case.

Everything in Sarah rose up to deny what she had seen. Suggestion and a trick of the light, the shadow of the chimney-breast and her own imagination----

The voice came whispering out of the dark again: “What have you done with the packet? I gave it to you. What have you done with it?

Sarah said to herself, “What I ought to do is to walk into the corner and prove to myself that there isn’t anything there. Or if there’s someone, it’s a trick. I ought to do that---I ought to do it at once.”

And right there she was faced with a mutiny. She took hold of the arms of her chair and put her weight on them. She began to make the movement which would bring her to her feet, but her muscles refused it. They let her drop back again, slack and helpless. A wave of weakness passed over her. The whisper came again, dreadfully faint: “I gave it to you. Oh, where is it?

Wilson Cattermole put out his left hand and laid it on Sarah’s wrist. She heard him say very quietly, “Miss Sarah, she is speaking to you. Answer her if you can.”

Well, what was she to say? The warm weakness flowed over her in a sickly wave. She said, “I can’t----”

It was very nearly true. She thought she was going to faint, and the idea terrified her. To lose consciousness here, in this horrible room---no, not whilst she had any fight left in her! She bit hard into the inside of her lip, and then, with the faintness just held back from swamping her, there came to her ears a gasping sigh and the sound of a fall. At once the chair next to hers was pushed back and Mr. Brown was saying in a concerned voice, “Miss Cattermole has fainted. I’m afraid---Cattermole, can you find the door? I really think we should get her away from here. We ought to have a light, but I haven’t any matches---I forgot them.”

“I haven’t any either.” Wilson’s agitated voice came from the middle of the room. He could be heard stumbling, and groping for the door. “Can you lift her? If I keep speaking, you’ll get the direction. I’m in the doorway. Can you manage? We ought to have a torch. I thought----”

Sarah made another effort to rise. This time she got to her feet. To her dismay, she was not very steady on them. Her head swam and her sense of direction was confused. When she felt Mr. Brown go past her she followed him. One of her hands, groping, touched Joanna’s trailing velvet and clung there.

They came like that to the door, and she remembered how low and narrow the opening was, and that there were two steps up to it. The Reverend Peter would never manage it with Joanna in his arms. She stood back to leave him room, and all in a moment the thing happened. A forward movement, a quick “Here---take her!”, the clatter of feet on the bare wooden steps, and, loud and dreadful, the slam of the heavy door. She heard it, and she heard a bolt go grinding home. The door was so thick that no other sound came to her. She stood in the dark and listened, but there was no other sound.

She sank down on the bottom step and hid her face in her hands.

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